A Narrow Band of Liberties
- Profit over People: Neo-Liberalism and Global Order by Noam Chomsky
Seven Stories, 175 pp, £26.00, October 1998, ISBN 1 888363 82 7
- Acts of Aggression: Policing ‘Rogue’ States by Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark, edited by Edward Said
Seven Stories, 62 pp, £4.99, May 1999, ISBN 1 58322 005 4
- The Umbrella of US Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of US Policy by Noam Chomsky
Seven Stories, 78 pp, £3.99, December 1998, ISBN 1 888363 85 1
- The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo by Noam Chomsky
Pluto, 199 pp, £30.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7453 1633 6
In Being and Nothingness Sartre has an admirable passage about the stubborn human tendency to ‘fill’, the fact that a good part of human life, in politics as elsewhere, is devoted to ‘plugging up holes’. Holes are vacant, and the humdrum psychopathy of political life seeks them out, in the cause of repletion – by contrast, the bore of omnipresence, as Sartre implies later when speculating about what life as the Almighty must be like, is that you just don’t get out enough. The Balkan hole-plugging exercise carried out by the US was power-play thinly disguised as moralism. Some truisms can’t be reiterated often enough, and we have anarchists like Noam Chomsky to thank for one of them: when the powerful talk of ‘liberation’, you can be sure that somewhere, in a state near you, odd-jobmen and peasants in uniform are clapping on the cangue and bilboes. Under what global dispensation could the abuse of power be subjected to any effective check? This question becomes the more obvious when the choice is between a behemoth and a monotreme, or as they are also respectively known, the US and the UN. The error, as others besides anarchists can see, lies in the thought that morality could be enforced by political power, and is the more glaring when the form that power takes is force majeure. Contra Thomas Nagel and other US liberals, leaders who can segue fluently from blowjob to prayer-breakfast should give us pause for thought. The gospelling blag takes a darker turn in ‘the new military humanism’ or, in other words, killing people as an act of charity. The propensity of morality to efface itself grows directly in step with its reliance on power to get what it demands. Understood as a datum of the political life, anarchism is not merely true, but a truism.
After all, the likes of Saddam Hussein and Henry Kissinger aren’t the likeliest incarnations of Kant’s ‘moral politician’. These grotesques manifest what in private life would amount to a criminal tendency. And given the less than intergalactic psychic distance between political and random violence, some wise fools might wonder whether there was that much to choose between the vigilant readiness of the Nato leaders and a psychopathic tendency. The euphemism used in Nato briefing-speak to accentuate the gap was ‘bringing the Serbs into compliance’. Kant’s political idealism and wised-up Machiavellian cynicism about political thuggery are not enemies, but bedfellows, and the rutilant dicta of the Dear Leaders are their misbegotten by-blow – as in the well-known military annex to the Rambouillet accords, discussed by Chomsky in The New Military Humanism, demanding Milosevic’s assent to the allied Anschluss of Serbia as a condition of ‘compliance’.
Chomsky – like a lot of contemporary political theorists – sees one half of this predicament clearly: the half which shows the use of power as surd and brute. What about the other half? It is not the banality that the world is not all that nice, or that those who help to run states are often not people you’d want round for a cup of Earl Grey and a garibaldi. It is that power, and the fall-out from its use, is not just a bit of bad luck, to be put behind us in some happier future state of the world. Our misery is endemic. It takes its rise from what Hobbes called a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. Hobbes’s state of nature is often thought to rest on controversial claims about human nature, but does not really do so – in a Hobbesian world, where there are no coercive structures, where the things which people value (such as security) are relatively scarce, and more of them can be got by deceit than co-operation, conflict must ensue. The choice is not between power and nothing, but between power and power.
This suggests that the landscape is more restricted than it may look. Two main views of international law currently circulate. One sees the limits of state obligation as drawn by self-interest: they’re taken to encompass a limited degree of altruism by citizens towards their compatriots, but not to extend as far as the woaded inhabitants of ‘bongo-bongo land’, or even the members of the next Neighbourhood Watch. The other view takes it that international law is an applied branch of natural law, construed in more or less explicitly moralistic terms; its rhetorical progeny includes the ‘ethical foreign policy’, making the world ‘safe for democracy’, the ‘New World Order’ and Operation ‘Just Cause’. To be sure, this second view has enjoyed greater entrée of late in the modish salons. But the two are not so unalike, granted the premise that ethical egoism prevails in international relations. Pre-Kosovo it was asked what ‘we’ should do, the assumption being that ‘we’ should ‘do something’ about Milosevic, and that nothing ‘we’ could do could be worse than nothing. The post-history of the Kosovo campaign indicates otherwise: accelerated ethnic cleansing, inaccurate bombing with collateral damage, an embittered Serbia, the less than staggering revelation that estimates of the killings of ethnic Albanians were wildly exaggerated in the prelude to the war (100,000 against a verified total of 3000, according to a recent report). Whatever else is to be made of Milosevic’s recent replacement (by another hardline Serb nationalist), it’s not plausibly seen as an outpouring of gratitude by the Serbian people towards Nato for having bombed them.
Vol. 23 No. 3 · 8 February 2001
In Commander Glen Newey’s world there are so many knaves and fools, so fearlessly assaulted, that one has trouble following him through the debris and collateral damage to the sober denouement: that the ‘Atlantic democracies’ are a lousy imposition on just about everyone and that the ‘laissez-faire mode’ is ‘incoherent’ (LRB, 25 January). Yet in his passion – like all good generals – he is not entirely reckless. Some of his bigger targets are easily dealt with: the UN (‘a monotreme’) or Nato (‘psychopathic’, give or take). But a warrior’s work is never done and so we turn to the mopping up. First the moralistic neo-imperialists in ‘the modish salons’ who want to make the world ‘safe for democracy’, whether by mouthing platitudes about ‘ethical foreign policy’ or bombing Yugoslavia is not quite clear. Same thing, perhaps? Anyway, there go the salonistas, or was it the torturers? Not sure. Somehow – but again this is a multi-target sortie and so we can’t be entirely certain – the same people are advocates of ‘statism’ (though you’d have thought Milosevic was the statist) who share their enthusiasm with ‘devotees in the torture-room’. Moving on rather briskly, we find the targets beginning to diversify: Francis Fukuyama, already dead in the water, is followed by ‘Union Carbide, Exxon, Shell’, the cigarette industry, Ford Motors, Anthony Giddens, Geoffrey Sampson, the Académie Française and the editors of ‘a UK newspaper’ who may have felt that Newey’s grasp of the 20th century had been impaired by too much strenuous campaigning. Newey is right, however, that liberalism is a shoddy arrangement. Someone will have to step in and sort things out. Preferably he should give no quarter. War of course is even shoddier, although the Geneva Conventions stress the importance of a proportionate approach in seeking to identify and engage the enemy. On those grounds alone, I fear, Commander Newey would have to appear before the appropriate tribunal.
Readers who got to the end of Glen Newey’s article about Chomsky might have been puzzled by his mention of the ‘UK newspaper’ that censored his sensitive and proportionate bracketing of Jack Straw with Heinrich Himmler. Since the paper for which I work is, to some extent, a bastion of pernicious liberalism I feel I ought to report that an all-dates search on our database shows no references to Newey. The blue pencil (which sounds remarkably judicious in its use to me) was exercised elsewhere.
Guardian, London EC1
Vol. 23 No. 4 · 22 February 2001
Glen Newey (LRB, 25 January) is right to be sceptical when reviewing the attempts that have occasionally been made to dream up a common source, aside from the simple fact that they’re both his, for Chomsky’s politics and his linguistics. That such attempts have been made is no doubt a tribute to the striking disparity between the heartening libertarianism of the one and the formidable rule-boundness of the second, as though someone like Chomsky, who has postulated that strict grammatical structures must underlie whatever meaningful sentences are uttered by whoever wherever, ought, by rights, to come out when switching his attention to political behaviour and principles, as some sort of extreme disciplinarian. it’s this disparity that explains Newey’s weird quotation from Geoffrey Sampson, about Chomsky’s having claimed that ‘syntax refutes liberalism.’ ‘How?’ Newey very properly asks, if only in a bracket. Presumably by narrowing down the possibilities of utterance and thought in some unspecified way. Except that, far from being a restriction, syntax is in fact the great enabler, and observation of its corpus of rules our guarantee that what we’ve said or written makes sense, whether it’s true or untrue, right or wrong, libertarian or fascistic.
David Walker (Letters, 8 February), rather puzzlingly, felt the need to deny that the Guardian was the newspaper which refused to publish Glen Newey’s ‘sensitive and proportionate bracketing of Jack Straw with Heinrich Himmler’, although he approved the mystery paper’s ‘judicious’ use of the ‘blue pencil’. A few days later the Guardian carried a piece by Henry Porter in which ‘entrusting our freedoms’ to Jack Straw was sensitively and proportionately compared with ‘committing an elderly relative into the care of Harold Shipman’.
Vol. 23 No. 6 · 22 March 2001
David Guedes’s squib (Letters, 8 February) in response to my piece about Noam Chomsky charges that I am nasty about quite a lot of people, such as Geoffrey Sampson, and not a few cherished institutions, such as Nato and the Académie Française; that, like high-altitude bombing, this nastiness is indiscriminate, or nearly so; and, anyway, there’s no pleasing some people. His main worry seems to be that I ignore contradictions which ‘knaves and fools’ might spot. For example, how can anarchists such as Chomsky moan that the Kosovo operation was illegal? If torture’s bad, how can it be bad to bomb Milosevic to stop him torturing (or conversely)? The ‘Atlantic democracies’ – that is, we – are the good guys, right? So how can we be the bad guys? But these are contradictions only for those who swallow – or mouth – State Department propaganda. The real inconsistencies surface when politicians try to gloss Realpolitik with moralistic rhetoric. Anyone who takes this rhetoric at face value risks being embarrassed by some of the actions waged in its name (such as killing Serbs or Kosovars for charity, or high-altitude bombing). Guedes voices the view, which he implies I share, that ‘liberalism is a shoddy arrangement.’ I assume he has in mind a liberal version of the old Marxist distinction between the ideal and the sad imperfections of practice. The actually existing liberalism of the ethical foreign policy, making the world safe for democracy, the New World Order etc, now has a long history, and includes the killing of a million-odd Indochinese civilians in liberal attempts to stem the tide of ‘Communism’. Shoddy? I’m only an exiled Brit trying to make sense of the local folkways, but is that what Americans call ‘irony’?
Princeton University, New Jersey
Vol. 23 No. 8 · 19 April 2001
Glen Newey dismisses David Guedes’s letter in response to his ‘piece’ on Noam Chomsky as a ‘squib’ (Letters, 22 March). A nice distinction. If the LRB weren’t designed for family reading, I’d be tempted to tell my fellow ‘exiled Brit’ exactly what his article was a piece of.